Why not the vest?

That's what the owners of Appalachiana/Recollections, a store that specializes in crafts, decided when they dreamed up a national wearable vedst competition. But even they were astounded at the interest: 270 vest entries from 35 states, using such diverse materials as gold thread, rattlesnake skins, bones, corduroy and mother-of-pearl buttons.

Joan Farrell and Anne Powell, co-owners of the shop, came up with the idea of a national vest contest last October. "Our concept was to use the vest as the jewel of an outfit, where you could just wear something simple and inexpensive underneath and still look smashing," says Farrell. "Most of the vests we received are like signed art pieces."

Some were so painstakingly constructed that one of the judges, Renwick Gallery director Lloyd Herman, wa tempted to show a group at the Renwick.

"There were definitely some that were of museum quality," says Herman, adding that he and other judges, quilting expert Jinny Beyer and local designer Maria da Conceicao, had a difficult time selecting the final six winners. (They estimate that some of the entries took at least 200 hours to make.) "A vest is the type of think that is very adaptable," says Jinny Beyer. "It doesn't need much fitting for the design to work, and it's an easy garment to expeiment with. I think quilted vests are great for keeping warm in the winter since we are keeping out houses so much cooler. They give you warmth without bulk aroung the arms."

The contest sponsors had expected to receive chiefly quilted vests, but as the boxes began to arrive, they found a wide assortment of fabrics and imaginative shapes. There were hooked, knitted, leather and woven vests. There were houses appliqued onto vests, a vest made entirely of designer labels. One woman used her husband's old ties, all inscribed with sentimental dates. A Florida woman caught her own snakes, made a vest out of the skins, and decorated it with antlers and arrowheads.

But perhaps the most surprising vest was the very first one that arrived.

"We eagerly opened the box and found what appeared to be a plain brown corduroy man's vest," says Farrell. "We couldn't believe someone would enter something like that. But when we unbuttoned it, we were shocked. It was lined in blazing red satin and covered with naked figures in soft sculpture."